New strains are emerging between China and its old ally, North Korea, six months after the death of reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The recent North Korean hijacking of Chinese fishing boats has shaken those ties considerably, leading to public pressure on China to stand up to North Korea.
Fishing boats returning to their home port in China don't normally make the news. But they did last month, because three boats — and 28 fishermen — had been detained for almost two weeks in North Korea.
"We were in Chinese waters, two nautical miles from the sea border, so we thought they couldn't arrest us," ship captain Han Qiang said in an interview with local TV.
The fishermen thought wrong.
Another captain, Zhu Chuang, described how 16 North Koreans boarded their boat, all carrying guns, all apparently wearing navy uniforms. They held the men in North Korea, while initially demanding almost $200,000 in ransom.
"They were locked into the ship's hold, which is just 30 square feet," ship owner Zhang Dechang says of the eight fishermen working on his vessel.
"They were let out to work, but if they didn't do enough, they got beaten. Sometimes, a man with a gun shot bullets into the air to scare the men," Zhang says. "They were terrified. They were hungry and thirsty. For them, it was like 13 days in hell."
After negotiations, the men were released without payment. The boat was stripped clean, Zhang says. All the fishermen's belongings were stolen, even their underpants. He says he is considering suing the North Korean authorities for his losses.
"If nothing else happens, we will prepare to sue. We need to protect our own interests. We were fishing in China's waters when we were taken away by North Koreans. So North Korea should take responsibility," he says.
No Longer 'As Close As Teeth And Lips'
Beijing has tried to shrug this off as a "fisheries incident," emphasizing the safe return of the fishermen. But the case has already caused an uproar online.
"What was unique about this incident is [that] this shipping boat owner, when he didn't get a response through bureaucratic channels, put the information online," says James Reilly of the University of Sydney, who has been researching the effect of public opinion on Chinese foreign policy.
"So it's really the role of the Internet and media which fanned the flames, and brought more emotion and anger and attention onto this issue, then brought it onto the agenda of the top leadership and the Foreign Ministry of China," he says.
It marks a new low in ties. China and North Korea are traditionally supposed to be "as close as lips and teeth." Beijing is Pyongyang's biggest source of trade and aid. But relations have worsened since the death of Kim Jong Il last December.
"[The] North Korean regime generally has taken quite an unfriendly attitude towards China," says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. "They have not informed the Chinese government of any domestic major steps, including Kim Jong Il's death itself."
"The nature of their regime is not only dynastic, but also well-known for xenophobia against their southern brothers and suspicions against China," he adds.
Shi says Beijing also wasn't notified in February, when Pyongyang signed a food aid deal with Washington, which later fell apart. As well, Beijing wasn't informed in advance about North Korea's rocket launch in April, which failed.
Shi says North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un, is not maintaining the high-level, regular coordination with China promised by his father, and he characterizes Beijing's mood as moving from expectation to disappointment to anger.
"If you only look at China's relations with North Korea, the situation is terrible," he says, adding that China has "lost face again and again" over the past decade in its dealing with North Korea.
Beijing Risks Alienating Its Own People
China signaled its displeasure in April, when it allowed at least nine North Korean defectors to leave China to start a new life in South Korea. Some of them had spent as long as three years cooped up in South Korean diplomatic compounds in China, awaiting permission to leave Chinese soil.
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin denied there was any change in stance toward North Korean defectors.
"On the problem of illegal border crossers from North Korea, our position is unchanged," Liu said. "China continues to handle such incidents according to domestic and international law, and humanitarian principles."
Beijing has been conducting a crackdown on illegal immigrants in the northeastern region bordering North Korea. China has recently stepped up pressure on North Korea not to conduct a third nuclear test.
That approach may have paid off, since over the weekend, Pyongyang announced it had no plans "at present" to conduct a nuclear test.
But the University of Sydney's James Reilly says Beijing has boxed itself in.
"It's hard to know what the alternative options are for Beijing. Possibly there are some economic lifelines [to North Korea] that Beijing could cut. If they did that, what are the outcomes?" he says. "All of those scenarios, not only are they uncertain, but they range from bad to worse to disastrous."
"The Chinese government, and many strategists would say privately, 'We don't have many options in this relationship; we're really stuck.' And the folks that are clearest about this are in Pyongyang," Reilly adds.
At a recent rally in Pyongyang, crowds of weeping children saluted Kim Jong Un, North Korea's young leader. By all accounts, he's as much an enigma to Beijing as to the rest of the world.
Beijing has long ignored international condemnation to provide support for North Korea, but now its continued support for Pyongyang risks alienating its own people as well.